Two weeks ago, Stubborn had an interesting article up where he compares the more grindy and reward-driven activities in WoW to gambling addiction. Now, discussions on video game addiction are always very problematic: while some ingame activities might resemble or share aspects of addictive behaviour, there are quite some hefty criteria for truly constituting “addiction” in the pathological sense of an illness. For one thing, its highly negative and disruptive impact on everyday life, to a point where the addiction stands above all other needs and the most basic cares will be neglected. For another, signals such as substance increase and withdrawal symptoms. Just because somebody is crazy about an activity and enjoys doing it a lot, or has a very competitive nature, does not automatically expose him as addict – although, there are no doubt extreme cases of video gaming where all these factors coincide.
However, it’s no secret that MMO design appeals to patterns and behavioural routines of the human subconscious. Some developers speak openly about triggering the collector’s drive of their player base or the “lever-reward” mechanic when designing content. Videogames are manipulative; we all know that. But as long as it’s fun, we’re happy to go along.
Most of the time, anyway.
I remember an old article at PPI, where Larísa pondered the heavy chains of daily quests and how she felt pressured to go through boring routines every time she logged on, when she didn’t actually enjoy them anymore. She was far from alone: many players in MMOs engage in time-consuming and repetitive activities, called the “grind”, which they loathe but will tolerate in order to gain rewards. They spend insane amounts of time forcing themselves to repeat content, reward drive and peer pressure usually winning the upper hand of the struggle. Wikipedia has the following to say about this sort of behaviour:
Compulsive behavior is behavior which a person does compulsively—in other words, not because they want to behave that way, but because they feel they have to do so.
Personally, I’ve always hated daily quests and rep grinds; I kept them at a minimum if I could, although being in a raid guild simply comes with certain “obligations”. The fact that I didn’t enjoy stuff like gaining exalted with the Sons of Hodir or collecting cooking tokens showed me that I was still relatively sane though. That is not to say that I never entered boring grinds completely out of my own volition: I did, I was running the same instances for months and years after all and a few times I farmed mobs for special rewards that I simply considered too shiny to skip. For most of the time though, I’d only undergo this type of drudgery if I really had to. I was very lazy that way.
It still baffles me how daily and rep grinds have become such an accepted form for gaining rewards in MMOs, while players will consider more varied and orchestrated forms of reward-gain, like attunement chains, a nuisance. I don’t want to start counting the hours and days players spend on cashing in the same quest item at the same daily quest NPC. How is that activity more fun than other so-called “time sinks”?
It can’t be bad if it’s fun
I’ve always been very outspoken against gaming bias and stigma, very pro “play as much as you like” as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And I hold to that. I won’t hide my playtime from anyone and I feel no shame for all the hours spent in front of a TV or PC, adventuring through virtual planes and having some of the greatest laughs ever. There is nothing wrong with having fun – and only you know if that applies or if some things are maybe slightly off balance. But just because you’re doing a lot of the same doesn’t make you a “junkie”. It can’t be a bad thing if you are enjoying yourself.
A good 13 years back, my older brother was what the average person would call a bad gaming addict. He rushed off to get a copy of Ultima Online when many private households didn’t even have a PC with internet yet, logging in every day with a crappy 30k and later 56k (omg!) modem, blocking our phone line and driving my parents crazy. This was the time when internet access was still horrendously expensive, charging minutes and hours per day before the first subscriptions came out, our monthly phone bill ranging in the area of 1500 Euros for the first few months of his “UO spree”. There was nothing that would keep my brother from playing this game; not the many keyboards and mouses my father removed several times, only to be replaced within the next 24 hours, not the smashed modem on the wall which my brother then cunningly hid inside a book case.
I remember sitting next to him on his bed countless nights, watching him play in silence – trying to spend some time with my sibling, or is physical shell anyway, while his mind was absorbed somewhere in Britannia. I remember finding him asleep, crashed halfway to the way of his bed one morning, I remember the dirty, stained desk with leftover food and cigarette ash. I remember his intricate list of directions for me to log into the game each week and “refresh his towers” while he was off to obligatory military service, terrified to lose his virtual possessions. It was a mad ride but it’s all my brother wanted at the time. I remember him roaring from laughter in front of his PC, chatting with his pals on MirC. The game certainly didn’t make him miserable.
After what was probably a good 3 years of intense Ultima Online gaming and a dark red player killer reputation to go with it, my brother had finally flunked his studies at University. Add an angry girlfriend to go with that, unhappy parents and some considerable debts for an unemployed student of his age to pay them back. And yet, to this day, my brother has the following to say about his UO days: that it was some of the best times he’s had in his life. To this day, there’s not a little regret for having played that MMO – regrets for never graduating sometime surely, but never regrets for playing the way he did.
…because these things were not directly connected. And he’d admit to that, in a quiet moment sometime over a good glass of wine in the evening, he’d tell you that he had plenty of good reasons to play as much as he did at the time.The game was there when he needed an excuse, a trigger to smash what needed smashing sooner or later. And yes, he did play too much; but he would never have finished those studies anyway. It was not for him, and I think by now he knows that too. The game was just there at a time when he needed to escape. Escape the expectations of adult life maybe, his girlfriend’s, his parents’. The game was fun and fun became an outlet. A place to rest, even if a mere onlooker could never understand and would no doubt blame his gaming addiction for everything.
My brother enjoyed playing as much as he did. It wasn’t great on all accounts, but neither was the game the cause of his deeper issues. Excessive gaming is at worst a symptom of an underlying issue and sometimes it can help a person and act as a catalyst. Maybe it has the power to let someone re-invent himself in a way he otherwise never could. Maybe it gives somebody a break, a place where he can be himself without the physical or mental ties that usually bind him. Maybe it can offer acceptance and affirmation to a hungry soul. Maybe it simply has the power to let a lonely heart find a place to chat and laugh with people of no further consequence.
Maybe it grants someone an escape in a time of deep distress; and maybe it has the power to let a person heal through difficult times before rising the stronger for it. Life is about breaks and sometimes it’s about phases of stasis or even paralysis. We are so used to rushing on blindly and pushing forward that we feel guilty to take timeouts for ourselves. Everyone is telling us to be productive, constructive, decisive. Yet, it is exactly during times of standing still and sinking deep where life has a chance to reshape and re-orientate, where we have a chance to listen more closely. It’s not always the best of feelings; waiting, standing in that empty white room between two doors before life turns the next page. For myself though, I am learning to embrace empty spaces. There is something unique and comforting about a white page, about not knowing where the road will lead.
Escape can be a way to return, just like sleep can be a way to recharge your batteries. I’m not sure the same should be said of all forms of escapism, such as substance addiction – for gaming however, I hold a torch for those that either play a lot for pure enjoyment or for catching their breath. Or both. Maybe both most of the time.
What I wish for you
To close, I feel I am left with two humble wishes –
I wish for players to enjoy their online adventures and enjoy them plenty.
I wish for players to be less ashamed of playing games.